How to Decode Misleading Food Labels

Supermarket shelves are home to a whole lot of health claims. But will the so-called health foods that are making them really help you get in shape?

Mystified by poorly labeled "health" foods? The answers are all in the label, says David W. Grotto, RDN, LDN, author of The Best Things You Can Eat. Problem is, most guys don't know how to properly read nutrition labels. Don't be that guy. Here, the secrets to decoding misleading food labels.

Unregulated Regulations

While the Food and Drug Administration defines and regulates the use of labels like "whole grain," "light," and "no added sugar," there are even more labels beyond its purview. But even regulated labels can be misleading. (Check out the FDA's full—and confusing—list of regulated food labels and their definitions.)

"The term 'health food' is not regulated and may be in the eye of the beholder," says Grotto. And the beholder is generally a food manufacturer's bottom line. Remember, food companies exist to make money. Likewise, foods with "low-carb," "healthy," "energy," or "fitness" claims aren't regulated, so manufacturers can pretty much slap them on any food they like, no matter how unhealthy it really is.



Even foods with regulated labels may not be as healthy as one would hope. Case in point: Foods sporting the yellow Whole Grain Stamp, which requires various nutritional requirements and is one of the most widely used industry standards, are higher in sugar and calories than whole grain foods without the label, according to research from Harvard University.

Added Ingredients Don't Always Mean It's Healthy

When food manufacturers take something out of a food (fat, sugar, calories, etc.), they have to replace it with something. Unfortunately, the replacement is usually a chemical soup of high-taste, low-performing additives. "Guys often assume that the entire product is healthy regardless of the other ingredients in it," Grotto says. Just because your cereal contains açai berries or high-fiber grains doesn't mean your go-to breakfast is actually good for you.

You Can't Eat Your Way to a 6-Pack

A sad truth: Health-food labels trick you into overeating. Recently, when German researchers offered people a trail mix with a fitness label, they ate about 50 percent more than when they were given the same mix sans label. When we see fitness-related words—or even photos of athletes or fit celebs—on food packaging, we assume the foods pack a lower caloric punch and we can guiltlessly binge. "Guys assume that health foods can make their one-pack turn into a six-pack overnight." Not so. If you don't control your portions, even the healthiest of foods can cause weight gain.

The Bottom Line

Read the entire nutritional label—not just the one plastered on the front of the package in bright colors, Grotto advises. Even if what the label touts is true, it's not indicative of the overall nutritional value of the food. The only way to know exactly what's in your packaged foods is to read that little black and white label on the back. A good rule of thumb is to look for the food with the lowest amount of sugar and sodium per serving as well as the fewest ingredients (fewer ingredients typically mean fewer additives). Even better: Stick with whole foods and leave the processed ones for the chumps.

—K. Aleisha Fetters

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